In a place where the walls themselves bent and reformed on a regular basis, there were few things that remained unchanged for any length of time. Feels Castle had always been a place of instability. It wasn’t a bad thing; it was just a fact. Instability was not, in itself, negative.
One of the few things that remained relatively unchanged was the back lawn, the gentle slope of which rolled down into a pond known only as The Bukket. The name’s origins were lost to history save a lone legible page from an ancient tome that resided on a forgotten shelf in the castle’s secondary library that hadn’t been accessible in several generations given the shape-shifting nature of the building.
Had anyone managed to find that page, though, they would have been thoroughly perplexed at the odd language employed. Something about “mah creys”.
Regardless, The Bukket and the surrounding lawn and gardens were a peaceful respite from the often tumultuous chaos of the castle. Not that the castle’s sole resident, The Grand Duchess Carolyn, was ever overwhelmed as so many of her guests were.
The castle was home, after all.
But sometimes, even the lady herself needed a small break, and the gardens provided a perfect escape.
So of course, it made sense that when playing host to dignitaries and commonfolk alike, Duchess Carolyn would be inclined to use the gardens, unless she were feeling particularly mischievous that day.
Preparations for the duchess’ 21st birthday had begun in earnest the previous week, and the party had been, honestly, one of the best she’d either thrown or attended.
Everyone had been there. Prince Sangsoo had come with the requisite unicorn in tow. Carolyn had smiled at him, grateful if somewhat confused as to what she was supposed to do with another unicorn. Princess Witch Katie had been in a particularly good mood and had only chuckled at her husband’s predictability while handing over her own gift.
"It’s… well, you’ll see. I think you’ll really like it. Just… don’t open it near any open flames, ok?"
The two hugged briefly before Carolyn started laughing. Katie pulled back and raised an eyebrow; then she turned to see what had caused the outburst.
There was Sangsoo on bent knee, holding one arm out in Katie’s direction, “Will you give me the honor of this *~dance~*, milady?”
"Oh my god, standupstandupstandup, what are you dooooing?" The scrappy witch went to smack Sangsoo’s hand away, but he managed to catch it, pulling himself up and her forward in one graceful twirling motion. "Happy birthday, Carolyn!" Katie managed to call back to their host before being swept into the dancing melee.
Carolyn smiled at the scene until a small tap on her arm caused her to look back toward the receiving line. There stood the final member of the royal family, Sub Prince Kimchi. The duchess’ smile only widened.
"Your majesty," she said playfully.
Kimchi beamed at her, thrusting a small, carefully wrapped package her direction. “It’s a necklace, ” he explained as she accepted the gift. “I used to make them from metal and scrap I found when I was… well, before I… before that day. Sangsoo happened. Um, but I liked it. And I guess now the materials are better at least, but um. I couldn’t think what else to get you and I thou—-“
"I’m sure it’s perfect." Carolyn cut in, pulling the boy into a hug. "Thank you so much, and for the record," she dropped the embrace and met his gaze, the same unfalteringly happy smile set into her features, "I’m glad that Sangsoo happened. I’m glad that you’re here."
Somehow, Kimchi’s own smile managed to grow just that much more. He wished her a happy birthday and went to find the food.
Immediately behind where the sub prince had stood, the royal adviser and high general waited for their chance to greet their host. “Sunny! Geunee!” Carolyn waved enthusiastically as her friends stepped forward.
"Your highness," Sunny said, tipping his head in a show of respect, before looking up and grinning. "Happy birthday!"
Geunee clapped happily, “yes, happy birthday, Lady Carolyn!”
The duchess exchanged quick hugs with both and added their gifts to the growing pile: a singing (if very dull and ineffective) sword from the high general and a book of late impressionist era Glitteropolis artists from the adviser.
Of all the visiting royalty that came that day, it was Queen Bree of Sweets Kingdom who really stole the show. She’d requested Carolyn have a swatch of empty space left to one side of the festivities for undisclosed purposes. Upon arriving and greeting her friend, Queen Bree had leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “Are you ready for your present?”
Carolyn nodded, fighting the urge to glance nervously up at the smirking wizard standing just to the side of his “employer”.
Bree grinned and stood back, raising her twizzler and cinnamon stick wand and waving it in an elaborate gesture. There were gasps from the crowd, and Duchess Carolyn turned to look just as a half dozen (sculpted jelly bean) tables began popping into existence in the empty space to the left of the buffet line.
The tables began filling themselves with every imaginable pastry, cake, pie, cookie, and candy. There were tall, elaborate chocolate fountains and platters of brittle and toffee.
"Happy birthday, Carolyn." Bree said as she lowered her wand and pulled her friend in for one more hug. "Now," she giggled, "I think I should go inspect it. Make sure everything came out alright."
With that, the queen looped arms with her attentive, if somewhat timid, escort, and they made their way to the sweet display.
The rest of the night went by in a haze of laughter and genuine fun. Carolyn spent much of the time surrounded by friends. Lord Taeyang and Earl Han Geng took turns dancing with the birthday girl, and while there had been rumors that the impressively talented Duke Taeil would be serenading her, he wound up being too nervous. Which was fine, really. Carolyn preferred the soft awkward smile he offered in apology and the quiet conversation they shared at a private table in the back. Though, of course, they were interrupted at one point by a rather bumbling porter who, in an attempt to flirt with the duchess, had wound up sprawled on the floor.
Carolyn couldn’t decide if she wanted to hit him or offer him a seat at the table, but she was saved from either when the head of staff came over, alternating between loud squawks of “Jaehyo, I cannot believe you did this. Tonight of all nights.” and “Your highnesses, I am so sorry for the intrusion.”
All in all, it was a good night. One of the best.
The only regret Carolyn really had was that she’d only briefly managed to spend any time with Hoik, Prince Sangsoo’s gardener. The two were close friends, but despite several attempts to get him to stop working and just enjoy himself, Hoik had remained focused on making the party perfect from beginning to end.
It was only after most of the guests had filtered out that Duchess Carolyn finally managed to corner the young man. “Ok, this is silly. The party is basically over. Will you just… take a little break?”
Hoik’s eyes went wide even as his mouth remained a perfect, even line. “Oh…” He sat down the gravy boat he’d been carrying, “…I… guess… you want your present now?”
"What?" Carolyn was genuinely taken aback. She hadn’t expected her friend to bring her anything. "You didn’t have t—-"
"No…" Hoik’s cut her off quietly before trailing off again. "…so." He took a small breath, "…do you? Want it?"
Carolyn could only nod before the man turned and headed off in the opposite direction, making a determined beeline for the lawn. The duchess followed shortly after, confused but curious.
As soon as her eyes met the sight that awaited her, Carolyn felt as though her heart had leapt up into her throat. She brought her hands to her face, letting out a little gasp.
The entirety of the back lack glittered with bulbed lights, candles flickering inside, each a slightly different size than the next. The scene stretched out over The Bukket’s calm waters and beyond.
She knew immediately what it was. She remembered all the times she’d thought she’d been boring Hoik talking about the stars, and here… he’d brought them to her. She recognized constellation after star cluster, each carefully reconstructed.
Hoik stood, anxiously shifting his weight from one foot to the other, hovering near the edges of The Great Trumpet Man and Dancing Bear Glitterius. He looked like he might throw up or turn and run at any second, which snapped Carolyn just enough from her revery that she closed the space between them and took his hand. “Thank you.”
She caught her breath again, tearing her gaze from the beautiful sight to look at him. “Thank you so much.” She squeezed his hand once before letting it drop back to his side.
Hoik only nodded, a smile twitching at the edges of his mouth. “You’re… um, welcome.”
The two spent the rest of the night sitting on the lawn, watching Carolyn’s stars and their celestial reflections.